Five Los Angeles County sheriff’s recruits were critically injured Wednesday morning when a man driving a Honda CRV plowed into a large group during a training run in South Whittier, authorities said.
The crash occurred near the sheriff’s STARS Center training academy, near Mills Avenue and Trumball Street in unincorporated Los Angeles County, Deputy David Yoo said. Dispatchers received a call at 6:26 a.m. about a crash involving pedestrians, Deputy Brenda Serna said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference in Orange County, where many of the injured were transported, that 25 recruits were hurt. They were members of Academy Class 464. He said injuries included head trauma and broken bones, and “we have had some loss of limb,” noting that one of the five critical patients “is currently on a ventilator.”
At least one of the recruits suffered cranial bleeding and was listed in critical condition, according to a source familiar with the mass casualty incident.
“It looked like an airplane wreck,” Villanueva said. “There was so many bodies scattered everywhere in different states of injury that it was pretty traumatic for all individuals involved.”
“Our hearts are with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s recruits injured this morning while training to serve their communities,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “Jennifer and I send our best wishes for their recovery and stand with their loved ones and colleagues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”
The group was running along Mills Road when they were struck, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Sheila Kelliher said.
California Highway Patrol Assistant Chief Charlie Sampson said there were approximately 75 recruits — two combined classes — running in formation when the SUV veered into their group. The group was running with drill instructors as well as two black-and-white radio cars as safety vehicles, and eight road guards. Everyone was wearing reflective vests, he said.
Recruits were running in four columns when a vehicle approached at 30 to 40 mph, Villanueva said. Those at the front of the column were able to get out of the way before the SUV struck others and then crashed into a light pole.
Two Bell Police Department recruits were among those injured, Capt. Art Jimenez said. They have since been released from a hospital, he said, and one was being taken back to the academy to be formally interviewed.
“It’s troubling and totally unexpected. These type of situations don’t happen very often involving your recruits,” Jimenez said.
Law enforcement cadets participate in a 22-week training program, and there are currently two classes based at the STARS Academy. They complete extensive training on firearms, law, police procedures, self-defense, law enforcement driving, physical fitness and force de-escalation. This was the eighth week of Academy Class 464, which included recruits from police departments in Glendale and Pasadena, Villanueva said.
The 22-year-old driver was detained at the scene by cadets, authorities said. The vehicle was going the wrong way, Kelliher said.
Nearby Howard J. McKibben Elementary School was closed, and classes were canceled following the crash.
The CHP has taken over the investigation into the cause of the crash. The agency’s multidisciplinary accident investigation team is beginning a forensic and technical examination of the scene.
“It does seem like this car did not slow down,” Supervisor Janice Hahn told KABC-TV. “It made me just sick when I heard [about] it.” Supervisor Kathryn Barger called the crash “senseless and tragic.”
Pat McDonald, captain of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s training bureau, which oversees the sheriff’s Academy, said “thank God for that light pole” or more recruits would have been injured.
Olga D’Ambrosio, of Santa Clarita, laid several bunches of flowers outside the STARS academy parking lot Wednesday afternoon. Her 22-year-old son, Alex, was among the deputy recruits who were running when the crash occurred. He was not injured and administered first aid to his classmates, D’Ambrosio said, her voice breaking as she described his phone call to her.
“He called me and said, ‘Mom, something happened. I’m OK,’ ” D’Ambrosio said.
He told her that usually he runs on the outside of the formation, but on Wednesday, he ran closer to the center of the group. She doesn’t know how that factored into the crash, but she can’t help but think he might have been hurt if he had been somewhere else.
Pastor David Trujillo said he prayed and met with the grief-stricken families of a few cadets who were transported in critical condition to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.
Trujillo, a Los Angeles County sheriffs’ chaplain, said he was one of three chaplains as well as a Roman Catholic priest who spoke with about 30 family members in a waiting room outside the intensive care unit.
“Shortly after the crash, the mood was one of sadness and fear because no one knew what happened or what was next,” said Trujillo, pastor at Calvary Chapel South Los Angeles. “As the day went on, the mood improved a little and you could see some hope from families.”
Law enforcement sources said the driver, who has not been identified and was transported to a hospital for his injuries, said he was sleepy. Authorities detected no smell of alcohol, but they are working to determine whether he was under the influence of other controlled substances at the time of the crash. Villanueva said he “blew a 0.0″ during a Breathalyzer test administered at the scene.
Sampson said the driver is from Diamond Bar, but authorities are not releasing any additional information about him at this time.
Investigators are looking into his background and have learned his uncle is in law enforcement. They say his initial behavior could suggest he was under the influence. They also said they found marijuana in his vehicle.
Down Trumball Street, homes had pumpkins on porches and orange wreaths on doors. One still had Halloween decorations up, with a skeleton waving from a small carriage in front.
Anthony Mendoza, 75, stood outside his home, where yellow crime scene tape blocked off Trumball Street and Mills Avenue. He’s lived there for 25 years and has seen the cadets running past over the years.
He said they normally run down Telegraph to Mills. He estimates it’s a four-mile run.
On Wednesday morning, he started hearing sirens around 6:30 a.m., but didn’t leave his home to check. Later, authorities came and knocked on his door and let his wife know there had been an accident.
“I don’t understand how this happened,” he said, gesturing at the wreckage.
Raymond Espinosa, 92, lives next door to Mendoza. He didn’t hear the sirens; all he heard was a helicopter overheard. He learned about the crash on the news.
Espinosa, who has lived in his home more than 50 years, has also seen the recruits running around the area in the past.
“You see them all come by here,” he said, adding that the neighborhood is usually pretty quiet and a crash like this is unusual. “It’s horrible.”
Throughout the morning, residents from across the city arrived at the intersection.
“Can you imagine the parents? They probably don’t even know yet that their kid got hit,” 23-year-old Jessica Martinez told her friend, Yvonne Salas, as they peered down the road.
The pair live in Whittier and had driven to the scene. Martinez’s neighbor texted and asked whether she saw what was happening on the news.
“It’s so sad,” said Martinez, who has a 3-year-old daughter.
“Stupid driver,” she added.
Omar Dadia, 42, has lived along Bentongrove Drive for four years. On Wednesday morning, his wife woke him after hearing sirens wailing along Mills Avenue.
Dadia walked to Mills around 7 a.m., where he said he saw the crashed SUV and bodies along the road. He heard groans and saw blood.
“Seeing those people laying there, some here, some there, hurt,” he recounted. “I can’t imagine what their parents would feel right now.”
“All they wanted to do is be ready to join,” he said.
Mike Pavich, 73, watched a neighbor try to exit Bentongrove Drive onto Mills Avenue and grew curious after seeing them turn around and go a different way. Then he spotted a sheriff’s cruiser turning sideways to block the road.
He walked down to Mills, coffee in hand, and heard yelling.
“There were guys laying in the street, on the sidewalk,” he said. By the time he got to the scene, there were 10 sheriff’s cars, with “more still coming, and ambulances were coming,” he said. He estimated there were a dozen ambulances, with firefighters working on the injured and covering them with white sheets or blankets.
“Why would a car go up on the sidewalk and hit 75 sheriff’s guys running,” he said. “These guys run all the time. Every month or every two months, you see them.”
“It happened so fast. It was quiet then just boom, boom and screaming and people on the floor,” Silva said.
He rushed to his balcony and saw the scene below, saying it looked more like a bombing than a car crash. People were on the ground in his driveway and the two closest to the crashed SUV were not moving at all, he said.
“ ‘This one’s not breathing,’ ” he said he heard people shouting about one recruit near the car and downed pole. “ ‘We need a tourniquet,’ ” he heard.
Video that Silva shot showed recruits desperately trying to treat the most badly injured, who were immobilized and bloody on the ground as smoke still spewed from the driver’s SUV. Voices shouting for more assistance and giving instructions can be heard as groups of the less injured gathered around those who were most seriously hurt, trying to render aid. Some of the recruits were emergency medical technicians, and at least one in the group was a trained nurse.
“There were a few that took control, saying, ‘We need help, here. help, here.’ They were quick to help their fellow guys,” said Silva, who noted that he sees the runners frequently, though not on a daily basis.
Christine Periman, 49, was asleep when her house shook early Wednesday. She wondered whether it was an earthquake and then thought a trash truck had struck something.
But the commotion outside didn’t stop.
She got out of bed and went out back to look. The crash happened directly across from her home on Mills Avenue.
“It was just devastation everywhere,” she said, seemingly at a loss for words as she tried to recount the scene. “Everyone was just in a panic.”
There were recruits in running shorts crouched over others splayed out on the sidewalk and road, she said. She could see blood on them.
One young woman, whom Periman described as “devastated,” clasped a hand to her mouth as she stood above a fallen recruit.
“ ‘We need an airway for him,’ ” she recalled one man saying. Paramedics hadn’t yet arrived. “I didn’t know if someone had died.”
It was so cold this morning that Periman offered some of the recruits who weren’t injured to come into her house “just to get warm.” Instead, they were wrapped in blankets firefighters provided as they stood along the side of road.
From her front yard, she watched CHP officers conduct a field sobriety test on the driver. He placed one foot in front of the other and walked in a straight line. They had him sit down on the curb after, she said.
“They never arrested him, but they did put him in an ambulance,” Periman said.
South Whittier resident Antwan Ramirez works a block away from the crash site in a mini-mall with a sheriff’s substation. He said the roadway is often busy in the morning.
“If you’re here in the early morning hours like I am, you have cars flying down the street at all hours. It’s really dangerous,” he said. “People are flying down Mills and Florence, racing to get to the 5 Freeway for work.”
Ramirez, a 23-year resident, said the area where the cadets were running is dangerous because it’s “filled with parked cars.”
“Imagine that you have a group of 15 or 30 people all running, and they can’t all fit on the sidewalk. They’re going to spill over into the middle of the street, and that makes them a target,” Ramirez said.
“It’s tragic stuff.”